Last week, I had the opportunity to talk to Ryan Coogler, the 27-year-old director whose debut feature-length film, Fruitvale Station, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and has since received rave reviews. It tracks the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, the 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot on New Year’s Day by an Oakland police officer. Ryan and I talked about Oscar’s death and how it has impacted the way we see ourselves as young black men in America.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: Start by telling me what made you want to tell Oscar Grant’s story.
Ryan Coogler: For one, as a filmmaker, like any artist, when something affects me emotionally I think about it in those terms. It’s my way of dealing with my thoughts, my fears and my hardships. I think the same can be said with any artist. For a musician, you’re going to write a song about something that affects you emotionally. It’s the same with a poet or a painter.
What made me want to tell this story? It started with the incident, and being right there in the Bay Area when it happened. Being the same age as Oscar. Oscar was born in 1986. And I couldn’t help seeing myself right there. Seeing that situation. Seeing his friends—they look like my friends. We wear the same clothes, the same complexion. So in seeing that I thought, what if that was me? And that is where the idea initially came from. Being so hurt and being so angry, and so frustrated, and confused about what happened. The same feeling everybody had when they were out protesting and rioting. And people on the other side on the Internet. And seeing the trial, I feel like it kind of got muddled over that Oscar is a human being. He became this saint or this idol that people held up. He became a rallying cry and a symbol for whatever kind of impressions you wanted to make him a symbol for. And the other side has demonized him. He’s a criminal. He’s a thug. He got what he deserved. Personally, he’s not either one of those things. I feel like what was getting glossed over was the fact that this 22-year-old guy didn’t make it home to the people that he mattered to most. And for unnecessary reasons—his life was cut short unnecessarily. And so many young black men’s lives get cut short unnecessarily. [They’re not seen as] human beings by people who don’t know them or are on the other side of [this particular] conflict who don’t seem to care.
I was watching one of your interviews and you said something that really hit me—you said, “A filmmaker’s most important tool is humanity.” And that really struck me because you are telling a story of someone. I was the same age as Oscar when he was killed. I was 22. And I’m looking at it—us, young black men, our humanity isn’t considered, like you were talking about. And I’m watching the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin right now, and the way they’re trying to paint Trayvon Martin, they’re trying to reduce him to a thug or this dude who was high. But I think with Oscar, the thing that struck me, especially watching it unfold on social media, because I was watching it on Twitter and I was horrified clicking that link and watching this dude get shot for no reason. But it was the timing of it for me because we had just elected Barack Obama. And my political differences with Obama aside—that was a real big moment. That was a point of pride to watch, on election night, this black man be duly elected the president of the United States of America. But then, not even two months later, you’re watching a brother your age get shot and killed by the police and you just realize again most of us are not going to be Barack Obama, but a lot of us could end up like Oscar Grant.